Scores killed in suicide bombing at Pakistan church

78 people believed dead in historic Peshawar church attack claimed by Pakistani Taliban

A pair of suicide bombers attacked a church in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, killing dozens of people after Sunday mass.
Fayaz Aziz/Reuters

A pair of suicide bombers detonated explosives outside a historic church in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday, killing at least 78 people and wounded more than 120 in the deadliest-ever attack on the country's Christian minority, officials said.

Among the dead are 38 women and 7 children, Pakistan's interior minister said, according to Reuters.  

A wing of the Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility, saying they will keep up attacks until  U.S. drone strikes stop. The latest drone strike came Sunday, when missiles hit a pair of compounds in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing six suspected militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

"There were blasts and there was hell for all of us," said Nazir John, who was at the church with at least 400 other worshippers. "When I got my senses back, I found nothing but smoke, dust, blood and screaming people. I saw severed body parts and blood all around."

Survivors wailed and hugged each other in the wake of the blasts. The white walls of the All Saints Church were pockmarked with holes caused by ball bearings or other metal objects contained in the bombs to cause maximum damage. Blood stained the floor and was splashed on the walls. Plates filled with rice were scattered across the ground.

"I heard two explosions. People started to run. Human remains were strewn all over the church," said one parishioner, who only gave her first name, Margrette.

Her voice breaking with emotion, she said she still could not find her sister.

Police said the death toll included at least four children, two policemen and six women

The attack occurred as hundreds of worshippers were coming out of the church in the city's Kohati Gate district after services to get a free meal of rice offered on the front lawn, said a top government administrator, Sahibzada Anees.

The Pakistani Taliban said it would continue to target non-Muslims until the United States stopped drone attacks in the country's remote tribal region.

The attack on the church, which also wounded 120 people, underlines the threat posed by the Pakistani Taliban at a time when the government is seeking a peace deal with the armed groups. It will likely intensify criticism from those who believe that negotiating peace with the Taliban is a mistake.

The dead included several women and children, said Sher Ali Khan, a doctor at the hospital where victims are being treated.

Claim of responsibility

Ahmad Marwat, who identified himself as the spokesman for the Jundullah wing of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying attacks would continue as long as U.S. drone strikes do.

"All non-Muslims in Pakistan are our target, and they will remain our target as long as America fails to stop drone strikes in our country," Marwart told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Jundullah has previously claimed responsibility for attacks on minority Shia Muslims in the southwestern Baluchistan province. Hard-line Sunni extremists like the Taliban consider Shiites to be heretics.

The bishop in Peshawar, Sarfarz Hemphray, announced a three-day mourning period in response to the church attack and blamed the government and security agencies for failing to protect the country's Christians.

"If the government shows will, it can control this terrorism," said Hemphray. "We have been asking authorities to enhance security, but they haven't paid any heed."

Hundreds of Christians burned tires in the street in the southern city of Karachi to protest the bombing.

"Although the government claims they are with minorities, we are being victimized," said one of the protesters, Tariq Masih. "We need justice."

Christians represent about 3 percent of Pakistan's population. The Sunni Taliban group in Pakistan have also carried out violence against the country's Shia minority, making up about 10-15 percent of the South Asian nation.  

Prime Minister's response

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack.

"The terrorists have no religion and targeting innocent people is against the teachings of Islam and all religions," Sharif said.

The U.S. has repeatedly demanded that Pakistan take stronger action against Islamic militants in the country, especially members of the Afghan Taliban who use the nation as a base to carry out cross-border attacks on American troops in Afghanistan.

The U.S. has carried out several hundred drone attacks against Taliban militants and their allies in Pakistan's tribal region. The attack on Sunday took place in the North Waziristan tribal area, the main sanctuary for militants in the country, said Pakistani intelligence officials.

Pakistani officials regularly decry the drone attacks as a violation of the country's sovereignty, but the government is known to have secretly supported some of the strikes in the past, especially ones that have targeted Pakistani Taliban militants at war with the state.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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